For many people with disabilities, losing access to a regular source of electricity can be a life-and-death situation. Certain medications, like insulin, need to be refrigerated. Some people are reliant on oxygen equipment that requires power. Others use motorized wheelchairs and similar equipment for mobility. In nursing homes, continually operating breathing machines are life-sustaining devices.
In California, the site of numerous high-profile wildfires in recent years, the nation’s largest utility company is taking unprecedented measures that mean people with disabilities may no longer be able to rely on continuous access to electricity. Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) argues that pre-emptive blackouts are necessary to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires, and thus save lives.
On October 9, 2019, PG&E took the extraordinary step of shutting down electricity in portions of 34 of the state’s 58 counties, affecting more than 700,000 households, or an estimated 2 million-plus people. On October 27, PG&E announced it was temporarily cutting off power to 1.3 million households, the largest outage in the company’s history.
PG&E has a special assistance program for roughly 180,000 people particularly vulnerable to electricity shutoffs, but the program mostly revolves around providing additional notice of upcoming blackouts. The company is not reimbursing customers who are forced to purchase generators or make other accommodations.
Despite this program, media outlets reported numerous stories of people who were frightened and overwhelmed by the blackouts, who didn’t receive the notices and who experienced medical emergencies as a result of the outages.
Politicians of all stripes have slammed PG&E for the shutoffs, signaling possible legislative or executive action to reform the company’s practices.
“Californians should not pay the price for decades of PG&E’s greed and neglect,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said in an October 14 news release. “PG&E’s mismanagement of the power shutoffs experienced last week was unacceptable. We will continue to hold PG&E accountable to make radical changes – prioritizing the safety of Californians and modernizing its equipment.”
It is equally likely, however, that intentional blackouts may just be a new fact of life for millions of Californians. On October 17, PG&E CEO Bill Johnson told the California Public Utilities Commission that customers can expect this for the next decade.